Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work
By MICKEY MEECE
Published: May 9, 2009
YELLING, scheming and sabotaging: all are tell-tale signs that a bully is at work, laying traps for employees at every pass.
During this downturn, as stress levels rise, workplace researchers say, bullies are likely to sharpen their elbows and ratchet up their attacks.
It’s probably no surprise that most of these bullies are men, as a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group, makes clear. But a good 40 percent of bullies are women. And at least the male bullies take an egalitarian approach, mowing down men and women pretty much in equal measure. The women appear to prefer their own kind, choosing other women as targets more than 70 percent of the time.
In the name of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, what is going on here?
Just the mention of women treating other women badly on the job seemingly shakes the women’s movement to its core. It is what Peggy Klaus, an executive coach in Berkeley, Calif., has called “the pink elephant” in the room. How can women break through the glass ceiling if they are ducking verbal blows from other women in cubicles, hallways and conference rooms?
Women don’t like to talk about it because it is “so antithetical to the way that we are supposed to behave to other women,” Ms. Klaus said. “We are supposed to be the nurturers and the supporters.”
Ask women about run-ins with other women at work and some will point out that people of both sexes can misbehave. Others will nod in instant recognition and recount examples of how women — more so than men — have mistreated them.
“I’ve been sabotaged so many times in the workplace by other women, I finally left the corporate world and started my own business,” said Roxy Westphal, who runs the promotional products company Roxy Ventures Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz. She still recalls the sting of an interview she had with a woman 30 years ago that “turned into a one-person firing squad” and led her to leave the building in tears.
Jean Kondek, who recently retired after a 30-year career in advertising, recalled her anger when an administrator in a small agency called a meeting to dress her down in front of co-workers for not following agency procedure in a client emergency.
But Ms. Kondek said she had the last word. “I said, ‘Would everyone please leave?’ ” She added, “and then I told her, ‘This is not how you handle that.’ ”
Many women who are still in the work force were hesitant to speak out publicly for fear of making matters worse or of jeopardizing their careers. A private accountant in California said she recently joined a company and was immediately frozen out by two women working there. One even pushed her in the cafeteria during an argument, the accountant said. “It’s as if we’re back in high school,” she said.
A senior executive said she had “finally broken the glass ceiling” only to have another woman gun for her job by telling management, “I can’t work for her, she’s passive-aggressive.”
The strategy worked: The executive said she soon lost the job to her accuser.
ONE reason women choose other women as targets “is probably some idea that they can find a less confrontative person or someone less likely to respond to aggression with aggression,” said Gary Namie, research director for the Workplace Bullying Institute, which ordered the study in 2007.
But another dynamic may be at work. After five decades of striving for equality, women make up more than 50 percent of management, professional and related occupations, says Catalyst, the nonprofit research group. And yet, its 2008 census found, only 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 officers and 15.2 percent of directors were women.
Leadership specialists wonder, are women being “overly aggressive” because there are too few opportunities for advancement? Or is it stereotyping and women are only perceived as being overly aggressive? Is there a double standard at work?
Research on gender stereotyping from Catalyst suggests that no matter how women choose to lead, they are perceived as “never just right.” What’s more, the group found, women must work twice as hard as men to achieve the same level of recognition and prove they can lead.
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